Category Archives: China-U.S.

United States Puts Trade War On Hold

THE US-CHINA trade war is on hold. Official. Or official, at least until the US president tweets that it is back on, or was never off or is over.

US Treasury Secretary Steve Mnuchin says the Trump administration will not, for now, impose tariffs on up to $150 billion in Chinese imports for alleged violations of US American intellectual property and unfair trade practices. The rationale, according to Mnuchin, who was speaking on one of the United States’ Sunday morning TV talk shows, is the progress made in last week’s trade talks towards a ‘framework’ for cutting the $375 billion merchandise trade surplus with the United States.

High-level US trade officials met their opposite numbers from Beijing in Washington last Thursday and Friday, which was followed by a communique that vowed that neither side would launch a trade war against the other.

China said it would buy more agricultural and energy products from the US as part of a substantial cut in its trade surplus with the United States, which will include still-to-be-discussed purchases of US manufactures and services.

Both of those, and particularly the latter, require structural reforms on Beijing’s part likely to come later rather than sooner.

Beijing said it would drop it anti-dumping investigation into US sorghum, but that at best will protect existing US exports now at risk, rather than create new business in itself. Also, while the US has plenty of energy, particularly liquefied natural gas, it could sell China it would have to build distribution infrastructure to deliver it. Privately, US trade officials say it could take three to five years to double US energy exports to China.

Sales of agricultural commodities could be ramped up within a crop season, however. China bought $19.6 billion-worth of US farm produce in 2017, making it US farmers’ second largest foreign market. The United States is hoping for a 40% increase this year. If that comes about, there will be only another $188 billion to go to the $200 billion cut in the trade surplus that the United States reportedly seeks.

Beijing also promised to address US concerns about intellectual property protections (although that is pushing against an open door given that Chinese firms have an increasing amount of intellectual property of their own to protect these days).

Whatever short-term concessions might be made to provide Trump with an arithmetical win on the trade deficit, Beijing will do nothing that compromises its Made in China 2025 industrial policy, which is the real war.

Meanwhile, our man in Washington sends word that President Donald Trump’s U-turn on sanctions against telecoms equipment maker ZTE got a rebuff from the US Congress last week.

The House Appropriations Committee snuck into an appropriations bill an amendment that forbids the Commerce Department from changing the sanctions on ZTE that it imposed last month for trading with Iran and North Korea.

The inclusion of a seven-year ban on US companies selling components to ZTE has led the company to cease operations, and it was that ban that Trump, surprisingly, a week ago ordered the Commerce Department to rescind and replace with a less onerous alternative.

There is a long distance between an amendment being passed in committee and making it into law, a distance few such amendments survive. However, even getting past the first step, acceptance into a bill, shows how driven US-China trade relations are going to be on the US side by domestic politics, and especially in the run-up to November’s mid-term Congressional elections.

The Democrats — and it was one of their number, Dutch Ruppersberger, a Congressman representing a district in Baltimore, that proposed the amendment — are attacking Trump’s policies at every turn, scenting the opportunity to recapture control of at least one house of Congress from the Republicans in the mid-terms.

This partisan dimension further complicates the already complex trade relationship between the two countries. There may be no war-war for now, but there will be plenty of jaw-jaw.

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China Is Back In The Korea Game

China’s President Xi Jinping (right) greets North Korean leader Kim Jong-un at the Great Hall of the People in Beijing during Kim’s visit to China from March 25 to 28. Photo credit: Xinhua/Ju Peng.

THIS BYSTANDER WAS was reminded this week that it was then South Korean president Park Geun-hye who was invited to the grand military parade in Tiananmen Square in 2015, not neighbouring North Korea’s still newish leader Kim Jong-un. Beijing considered North Korea an anachronistic problem state, and except for the oldest generations of Party cadres, held it in disdain.

Relations between Beijing and Pyongyang remained cold to the point that by last November, China was enforcing international sanctions against North Korea’s missile and nuclear programme with a severity never before applied. As China accounts for 90% of North Korea’s trade, that hurt.

US President Donald Trump’s bellicosity towards Kim (and vice versa) then gave cause for China to patch up its relations with North Korea. The prospect of a US military strike against North Korea threatened not one but two of China’s red lines — no regime collapse in North Korea that would send millions of refugees flooding into northern China and no US or US-aligned troops up against its borders.

When in May, Trump boldly accepted an invitation from Kim for direct talks, temporarily sidelining China from what had long been six-party discussions over the peninsula’s future, Beijing swung into action, seeing the gains in influence it had made in the region, in part as a result of the Trump administration’s broader regional disengagement, being at risk.

Kim left his country for the first time, taking his armoured train to Beijing, where President Xi Jinping accorded him full pomp and ceremony. As the Kim-Trump summit in Singapore on June 12 approaches, Kim has been back to Beijing. There were close discussions before US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo visited Pyongyang in April and again earlier this month and North Korean delegations are in Beijing in number.

China is clearly signalling that Kim will not go into the meeting with Trump alone; he still has a powerful friend in China.

Beijing will also undoubtedly have been coaching Kim on dealing with Trump in person. Beijing is finally getting a handle on the mano-a-mano dynamics of US foreign policy under the Trump administration (learning now starting to be seen to good effect in the US-China trade dispute, too).

Beijing will also be doing what it can to ensure that any deal Trump and Kim strike is acceptable to it. It will not necessarily want to position itself as the guarantor of an agreement ensuring the security of the Kim regime in return for whatever ‘denuclearisation’ Kim and Trump agree on, but it will want any deal internationally embedded. Ideally, it would like a six-party treaty signed off at an international level and enshrined at the UN.

It is unlikely to get all that but will be satisfied by a deal that gets the Korean question sorted out, or at least contained for a generation in so far as that means stability on the peninsula. A cardinal principle of its foreign policy is not to have more than one troubled front on its borders at any time.

To that end, it has also been warming relations with Japan, primarily, and India.

Full denuclearisation is less of a priority for China than it is for the United States. The crunch question is not about dismantling the North’s nuclear weapon building capacity but whether or not there will be some capacity for North Korea to retain what is already has.

The Trump administration will try to get Kim to agree to remove as many nuclear weapons as possible as quickly as possible. However, Kim will push actively to keep some warheads.

The deal will thus likely be a thin one, with North Korea keeping some of its nuclear capacity for some time but not expanding it, and accepting international inspections for verification of compliance.

The other factor in play is sanctions, which Kim will want lifting (or at the very least for China to stop enforcing). He will, though, have to make concessions on exporting cyber terror and weapons technology.

Kim is now politically secure at home and can turn to prioritising economic development, though he has not entirely quashed domestic opposition to this.

Beijing has a strategic interest in his primary partner being China, not South Korea. Stability, not reunification (South Korean President Moon Jae-in’s objective) is what Beijing wants to see on the Korean peninsula.

There is plenty of risk to all sides in the Trump-Kim summit. Trump is unpredictable, and Kim is an unknown quantity in such a setting. However, both men have invested a lot in getting a deal — any deal. Beijing is now doing what it can to make sure it is not a bad deal but also one that would enable North Korea to be integrated into Chinese-led regional structures more efficiently.

A failure of the talks would be the least welcome outcome. In that event, Trump would most likely resume his bellicosity and resort to US military action. China and North Korea have a mutual defence pact that runs until 2021, so theoretically Beijing would have to come to Pyongyang’s aid if Washington attacked. It is highly unlikely in practice that it would.

However, it could also play into Beijing’s hands if a breakdown in talks further damaged US credibility in Asia, opening more space for Beijing’s plans for security and economic partnerships in the region. There is opportunity as well as risk for Beijing in the outcome of the Singapore summit.

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One Trade War, Two Playbooks

WHAT IF CHINA and the United States are playing a different game over trade even as they stare each other down over tit-for-tat tariffs?

US President Donald Trump may well be following his well-tried playbook of creating maximum chaos with hardball threats and maximalist demands and then playing matters by ear as he seeks to negotiate the deal he wants.

Trump indeed hints at working on “a massive deal” with China, but China says there are no such negotiations and Trump’s new chief economic advisor, Larry Kudlow, confirms that, telling Bloomberg TV that he hopes there will such discussions in the next couple of months.

China, on the other hand, may just be waiting by the river, knowing that if it waits long enough, as the Sun Tzu playbook has it, the bodies of its enemies will float by.

If, as this Bystander believes, this is all really about control of the technologies that will determine economic prosperity in the future, then the long game is the one to be playing.

Little need to win the trade battle when the goal is to win the economic war.

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Technology, Not Trade Is Real China-US Fight

THE RETALIATORY 25% tariffs imposed on 128 US imports from frozen pork to specific fruit and nuts worth a total of some $3 billion are carefully chosen.  They mainly target products for which China is a principal market for US producers.

However, they are also a relatively mild retort to the tariffs imposed by the United States on steel and aluminium imports last month. The bigger concern is how Beijing will respond to the already announced but unspecified second set of tariffs that Washington has announced on $60 billion worth of Chinese exports in retaliation for alleged theft by Chinese companies of US technology and intellectual property.

“China has yet to unsheathe its sword,” state media commented.

The Trump administration is expected to announce the details of the second set of tariffs sometime this week ahead of Friday’s deadline.

For its first round of retaliatory tariffs, Beijing is acting under World Trade Organization rules that let countries impose tariffs to compensate for another country’s export restrictions. Hence Beijing’s use of the phrase in announcing its tariffs that they were ‘in order to safeguard China’s interests’, the necessary WTO condition that needs to be complied with in such circumstances.

Chart of US exports to China by category, 2016. Source: MIT's Observatory of Economic Complexity.

Beijing is also arguing that the tariffs, which Washington imposed on national security, not market disruption grounds, contravene WTO rules.

Trump has attacked the WTO in a tweet, but at the same time, the US is pushing its technology transfer misappropriation claims through the global trade organization’s disputes procedures.

This Bystander remembers how in the 1980s when it was Japan not China that was going to take over the world and eclipse the American century, that the United States waved the big stick of tariffs and then negotiated a settlement with Tokyo for voluntary Japanese export restraints.

The problem with that approach today is that it might reduce a bilateral trade imbalance, but it does little for solving technology transfer issues when both sides are fighting an existential battle to dominate the industrial future which will turn on control of technologies.

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First Trade War Shots Fired In Anger

THE TRADE WAR has started. Whether it will be a short, sharp skirmish or a drawn-out campaign is impossible to predict, mainly because the actions of US President Donald Trump are so unpredictable.

Trump has got the tariffs he loves. First, general ones on steel and aluminium; now specifically anti-Chinese ones on up to $60 billion-worth of exports following a Section 301 investigation into alleged theft of US intellectual property by Chinese firms, plus some formalisation of the curbs already being put in place to restrict Chinese firms acquisition of US technology via mergers and acquisitions.

The United States will publish the detailed sanctions within 15 days but they are expected to focus on the aerospace, information and communications, and machinery industries — all sectors of the Made in China 2025 initiative. Details of new US investment restrictions will be announced by the US Treasury within 60 days.

China has said it will stand its ground in defence of its national interest. Immediately, it looks set to impose retaliatory tariffs for the United States’ steel and aluminium tariffs on $3 billion of imports from the US such as food, wine and agricultural produce. It is difficult to imagine that China will not also retaliate against the latest round of tariffs.

Whether Beijing’s offer of some opening of its markets to US firms comes to anything is anyone’s guess at this point. China has made such offers in the past and Trump may regard this latest one as further appeasement of the sort he likes to reject as ‘not working’. When it was first presented by now Vice-Premier Liu He when Beijing was trying to preempt sanctions earlier this year, it cut little ice in Washington.

The shakeup of the US foreign policy and national security team in recent weeks seems to confirm a hawkish shift within the White House. That may mean Iran and North Korea deflect attention from the China trade issue, but it would be a brave soul who would bet on it.

If anything, the departure of the foreign policy moderates leaves even fewer constraints on the China trade hawks who now dominate that part of the administration.

For Beijing, the challenge becomes to reformulate its approach to Washington now its policy of containment of Trump is under stress.

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OECD Raises China Growth Forecast And Risks To It

THE OECD HAS edged up its growth forecast for China this year to 6.7% from the 6.6% it projected in November but holds its 2019 forecast unchanged at 6.4%. The revised numbers are contained in the newly published interim Economic Outlook from the rich countries’ think tank.

Overall, the OECD sees a steady or improving expansion across most G20 economies thanks to the bounce back of trade and private investment, with fiscal stimulus in the United States and Germany providing a boost to short-term growth, while inflationary pressures are subdued. Specifically, on China it says

Growth surprised on the upside in China in 2017, helped by a strong rebound in exports, but is set to soften to just below 6½ per cent by 2019. Macroeconomic and regulatory policies are gradually becoming more restrictive, the working age population is now declining and credit conditions are less expansionary. Regulatory efforts are continuing to reduce financial risks, deal with overcapacity in some sectors and improve environmental quality. Fiscal policy is now broadly neutral, but additional measures could be implemented if output growth were to slow more sharply.

However, the risks to its general forecast all threaten particular vulnerabilities of the Chinese economy: tightening monetary policy in the advanced economies, high debt and asset valuations, and a potentially damaging escalation of trade tensions.

The importance of tackling high debt levels is illustrated in this chart.

Chart of G20 total debt, public and private non-financial sector, as % of GDP, 2001-2017. Source: OECD

The OECD calls on Beijing for policy initiatives to reduce the high level of corporate debt, in particular.

The OECD also makes a point of the importance of safeguarding the rules-based international trading system. China has repeatedly been saying the same thing, if somewhat self-servingly and with itself as the guarantor, since long before the Trump administration announced import tariffs on steel and aluminium. It is likely to echo the call again as the United States readies a Section 301 action on intellectual property rights and technology transfer practices aimed at what the US president has flatly called China’s theft of US technology.

Meanwhile, the Trump administration has reportedly told Beijing that it has to come up with a plan to reduce China’s $375 billion trade surplus with the United States by $100 billion within a year.

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Breakthrough Or Blunder, Trump-Kim Talks Trouble China

Composite image of North Korean leader Kim Jong-un (left) and US President Donald Trump.

CHINA HAS LONG held that talks are the only way to de-escalate tensions between North Korea and the United States. It now has talks — or at least the promise of them — following US President Donald Trump’s surprise acceptance of an offer to sit down with North Korean leader Kim Jong-un by May for a face-to-face discussion on denuclearization.

The White House confirmed the talks, as it does, by Twitter.

The downside of this development for Beijing is that it will not be at the table (unless by some chance it manages to host the talks), at least initially.

Foreign ministry spokesman Geng Shuang made the right supportive noises about ‘dialogue and discussion’ in response to the announcement in Washington by the South Korean officials who had recently met Kim in Pyongyang. However, it did not escape this Bystander’s notice that he also slipped in a call to start multilateral meetings to advance the process of peacefully resolving the Korean nuclear issue, and that China would continue to make efforts on this.

Beijing will, of course, welcome the sudden prospect of diplomacy after months of belligerent invective between ‘the Dotard’ and ‘Little Rocket Man’. It will also be conscious that that diplomacy may be short-lived; it is difficult to be certain of Kim’s motives, and the history of arms control negotiations involving Pyongyang argues for caution about possible outcomes.

The previous attempt to get Pyongyang to disarm by negotiation was the Six-Party Talks involving the two Koreas, China, Russia, the United States and Japan that followed North Korea’s first nuclear weapons test in 2006. The deal on the table was that Pyongyang would shut down its nuclear and programme in exchange for aid and sanctions lifting. However, what could not be agreed was how to verify the North’s compliance. The talks broke down in 2008. Pyongyang resumed nuclear testing the following year, and Beijing signed on for the first time to sanctions against North Korea.

This time around, Beijing perhaps as much as Washington will be wary that Kim is again just buying time. And its red line remains no North Korean regime collapse that ends up with US or US-allied forces on its border.

The risks in bilateral talks between North Korea and the United States, should they turn out well (at this point a long shot, to our mind), is that North and South collectively end up more aligned with the United States and less with China, providing Washington leverage to use North Korea as a strategic balancing power in the region, a role that would give Kim some of the aggrandisement he craves.

The Global Times, a voicepiece on international affairs for the Party, noted that “as a major power, it is unnecessary for China to worry about North Korea ‘turning to the US’” — a comment that suggests Beijing is worried about just that.

Talks driven by Seoul, Pyongyang and Washington sideline Beijing, not a comfortable position for ‘a major power’.

Perhaps the best analogy for the latest developments is a chess match. Kim has just made an audacious move, which he will have thought through carefully. Trump has responded instinctively. We do not yet know if one or both men have played the breakthrough winning move or have blundered badly.

If Trump comes to feel he has been deceived or belittled, he will likely retaliate punitively. And that may be the worst outcome from Beijing’s perspective of a match at which, for now at least, it is on the sidelines.

For one, it would test Beijing’s commitment to implementing its 1961 Friendship treaty with the North that obliges it to intervene on Pyongyang’s side in the event of military ‘aggression’.

While we have been here before with the Six-Party Talks, what may different this time is that the North now has nuclear weapons that can reach the mainland United States. Historically, after they have acquired a nuclear arsenal, ‘rogue’ nuclear states, move onto legitimising their nuclear status and then finally to casting off the sanctions they incurred along the way.

If Kim is preparing to take the second step and Trump thinks he is stopping Kim from taking the first, where does that leave Beijing?

Arguably it still maintains the most leverage of any of the involved parties over its neighbour. But how can it use that to broker a compromise that provides the regional stability that it most desires within a multilateral framework to deliver it in which it can play a leading role when it is not in the room?

In that regard, much may turn on the personal relationship between Trump and President Xi Jinping, who again talked on the phone on Friday with Xi nudging Trump to develop bilateral talks with Kim into multilateral ones.

As we have noted before, Beijing has two sets of relationships to manage, one with Pyongyang and the other with Washington. Both have highly unpredictable players on the other side — and now both those wild cards are going to sit down together.

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